Champion of students back to set agenda

Treasury adviser and former NUS leader heads new National Student Forum. Rebecca Attwood reports.

January 31, 2008

It has been some 20 years since Maeve Sherlock was president of the National Union of Students, but no one could accuse her of being out of touch when it comes to understanding what it means to be a student in the 21st century.

Two decades on, the newly appointed chair of the National Student Forum is back at university, studying for a PhD on the interface between faith and the state in modern Britain, and tutoring at Durham University.

And the years between have seen her fight for the educational needs of refugees as chief executive of the Refugee Council, and of single-parent families as head of the charity One Parent Families. She has also advised international students as director of UKCosa, taken a masters degree, and was a distance learner with The Open University.

So when she was approached by the Government about chairing the NSF, she believed could add something to the process.

Ministers have promised that the forum, whose creation was announced in October, will "have teeth." It will set its own agenda and will call the Government to account on issues of concern to students, producing an annual report to which ministers will respond.

"I've had lots of different perspectives on higher education and on being a student," said Ms Sherlock, 47. "I hope I can help the forum's voice to be heard, and for it be something that can influence ministers."

She is also keen to hear diverse viewpoints.

"I'm quite nosy and I'm keen to know how students from all different backgrounds feel how higher education has been for them."

Ms Sherlock began her degree in sociology at the University of Liverpool in 1981 before becoming NUS president. She later became director of UKCosa (now UKCisa, the UK Council for International Student Affairs), in a period when overseas student numbers were rising rapidly.

Before heading the Refugee Council, a role she held until 2006, Ms Sherlock advised the Treasury on issues including child poverty, labour markets and the third sector.

Returning to higher education, she has noticed a change in students' attitudes towards their study.

"The biggest difference is that universities are much bigger. The pressure is much greater than it was in my day, with almost half of young people going to university, and the financial pressure.

"At Durham, students work incredibly hard but also do lots of other things, such as sport - they are Renaissance young men and women. My worry would be that they'd have been driven just academically but they seem to be much more rounded than that."

As an undergraduate, Ms Sherlock recalls, she did not worry too much about getting a good degree.

"I certainly wasn't anything like as focused or driven. The very fact that you'd got there meant you already had a leg-up - now it is much more competitive. The major thing was whether you could get in. Now it is much more democratic."

Although she is keen not to pre-empt the outcomes of the forum's future discussions, she expects, unsurprisingly, that it will examine whether the system of fees and loans is a barrier to participation.

As chair, she will help the forum - which will be made up of student representatives of the NUS, the National Postgraduate Committee, The Open University Students' Association, the Mature Students Union, Skill and the British Council - to keep abreast of the issues and pick up on the ones that most matter.

Feeding into this will be the outcomes of a series of "student juries", being held in Manchester, London, Bristol and Sheffield over the next few weeks.

John Denham, the Universities Secretary, described Ms Sherlock as someone who would "have the confidence of students".

"The Government believes that the views of students should have a real influence on higher education policy. We need to hear their views so that we can help improve the university experience for them and for future learners," he said.

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